Click on the image for an ebook of photos and highlight quotes

30 May 2018  – It started out as a simple interview with visiting US green building author and consultant, Jerry Yudelson.

It culminated with a “salon” dinner (Jerry’s term, but we’re sticking to it) for a handful of green property leaders at Sydney’s Bambini Trust restaurant.

The result was some fascinating discussions: from the  failure of governments world-wide to generate change to the “forgiveness factor” in green buildings, and a new survey that will show most buildings have a small variation only compared with their rating.

Jerry Yudelson was  in Australia as keynote speaker for the recent ARBS exhibition and conference in Melbourne.

The event was sponsored by the Investa Sustainability Institute

Guests in alphabetical order were:

  • Andrew Aitken, executive director – Green Star, Green Building Council of Australia
  • Lynne Blundell, associate editor, The Fifth Estate
  • Matthew Clark, director Water and Energy Programs, NSW Office of Environment and Heritage, Department of Premier and Cabinet
  • Richard De Dear, head, architectural science, Faculty of Architecture, Design and Planning, University of Sydney
  • Steve Hennessy, director, WT Sustainability
  • Romilly Madew, chief executive, Green Building Council of Australia
  • Craig Roussac, general manager, Sustainability, Safety and Environment, Investa
  • Tina Perinotto, managing editor, The Fifth Estate
  • Jerry Yudelson, guest of honour, green building author and consultant

Highlights of the evening

Carbon price:

Jerry Yudelson: Don’t you think the real problem is setting too high a price for the market?
The floor is $15. It will never happen in the US or the EU. Australia is going out there trying to be the engine of this huge train.

Lynne Blundell: But there are carbon trading schemes elsewhere?

Jerry: Yes, but they’re very flat right now. There’s no real market.

Steve Hennessy: What about California?

Jerry: California is like the Australia to the rest of the US in a way.

Steve: We hear stories that California is attracting all the wonderful industries associated with energy efficiency and renewables.

Jerry: There is some of that, but a lot of the money that’s going into solar is going to buy Chinese solar panels to put on Californian homes – so there’s a value-added for California – but as far as generating new industries for the 21st century, they’re all going to be in China. [This leaves lower-yielding work for the US and the higher yielding work for China, Jerry said.]

Performance measurement and systems

[Craig talked about the difference between predicted and actual performance of buildings, which had much to do with the impact of the way a building was being used and maintained by the building’s operators.]

Jerry: I think the new software for building management and putting stuff in the Clouds [cloud storage] will change that. I liken it to the human body – you’ve got all these sensors but just one central processing unit, and what we really need to do is centralise the intelligence and decentralise the sensors … there aren’t enough people to run the buildings. In the US building portfolios now more and more tend to control the buildings remotely.

The biggest issue is controls. Controls don’t work. We have two LEED Platinum projects done by engineers for themselves or for their best clients that, after five to six months, are still comissioning the lighting controls.

Usually engineers don’t design controls in detail – they get a contractor to do it – and if a contractor has never seen a radiant heating system or chilled beam system before they’re going to make the controls work as if it was as a standard, overhead VAV system. It takes a long time to sort that out.

[Engineering expert] Adrian Leaman in the UK says it takes a three-year shakedown to get these things right. You just don’t get it all right first up. In the US when the warranty period expires everyone says “Good luck, God bless”, and walks away, because there’s no fee for follow-on work.

In my mind the biggest scandal in our business is that architects and engineers don’t follow their projects beyond the first year. And so they don’t see how they work. If you spent this much on manufacturing and didn’t have learning … would you want to fly a Boeing777  built in the same way as  $100 million building? Would you want to fly that thing?

A US issue is we haven’t done a building survey – a commercial building energy survey – in almost a decade. The last one was in 2003. The next one is scheduled for release in 2014 – maybe.  We’re spending billions of dollars but nobody knows what these buildings use. The reason? Lack of priority at the US Department of Energy. Number one.

They claim there was an issue with the methodology with the 2007 survey, but they haven’t redone it to date. It’s not a priority.

The priority is pouring out billions for solar technology and they won’t spend $10 million on getting the data that would help us learn what is working. So we’re flying blind. In 2003 the average energy use was 400 kW H per square metre, and we’re getting 100 to 150 with new buildings.

Crisis in western democracies and the need for frugal design

Jerry: In the US we’re seeing the beginnings of intergenerational warfare. Only 40 per cent of under 30s vote. Among over-65s, 80 per cent do, and so one day the younger people are going to wake up and realise that they’re not going to have the security that their parents and grandparents had, and so long as they’re holding onto that security, you can’t change anything significant. There’s no social agreement. I think that’s a huge issue for all western democracies. There’s literally no social agreement on the future except more of the same and right now we’re coming to the end of that process globally. One economist calls it the great de-leveraging. We’ve leveraged since the 80s and now we’re at the end of that, and it’s very painful.

We want it to be over tomorrow but it’s not going to be over anytime soon. That’s why you’re seeing the far right parties emerge. It’s like the 1930s.

So how do you get out of that if you want to look at the broad picture? Everybody’s doing these sustainability studies and plans.

Everybody puts the problem off: the next government, the next administration.

I think the political classes have been lying to us for so long that they’ve forgotten [what they are there for or how to tell the truth.]

The public pension funds in the US are underfunded between 20 and 40 per cent for future benefits payments, some even more.

The Medicare insurance in US: the date of insolvency is moving forward closer and closer to the present. Same with social security funds. Every time they do the actuarial calculations, the date of negative cash flow is getting closer, so at some point it will be here.

We’ll have to do sustainability with very little capital. I call this  I call this new era “frugal green.”

Craig Roussac: It’s what happened in Japan. They lost 30 per cent of their energy capacity with the loss of nuclear. They’ve partially made it up with other energy but  they’ve lost 15 per cent in total.

How frugal can we get?

Craig: When Governor Phillip arrived in Sydney Cove the local Aboriginal people had longer life expectancy than the people on that boat, their teeth were better and they worked two hours a day.

Jerry: Here’s the good news: the median age outside the G7 countries is about 18. If we could continue to educate people and remove barriers, we’ll have a huge productivity boost coming in from the rest of the world. We’re just going to have to share more.

On the role of government and direct and indirect funding

[Matthew and Jerry discuss the role of government. The issue of the Tax Breaks for Green Buildings program, recently axed in the federal budget is the context.

Matthew: The main role is probably to provide information and benchmarking – credible and trustworthy data.

[Jerry agrees information is key for government and discusses the need for studies and benchmarking (and the lack thereof in his country) so that the  industry has certainty and can  act confidently. On incentives and direct funding, he says  that effectively the industry has a business case to take action without direct financial support.]

Complex design

[Jerry relates a conversation with Grocon chief executive Daniel Grollo, and a tour he took through Grocon’s highly rated Pixel building in Melbourne. Jerry is concerned there is no one currently occupying in the building, though that should change later this year. It was promoted as a showpiece, a laboratory for new technology, he points out, but it needs people in it to give the experiment a true value.

[Jerry notes that 1 Bligh Street in Sydney, which he is scheduled to tour the following day, is now 85 per cent leased, the latest two floors to Bloomberg. The building comes in for much discussion about the difficulty of constructing the project during the GFC, its double skin façade – is it suitable for the Australian climate or more suited to cold European climate, for instance? – and its leasing profile.]

Romilly Madew: It incorporated a lot of innovation, like BIM [building information modelling].

Craig: Every building does that these days. We did on 40 Mount Street, [Sydney].

Romilly: Compared to America and Europe, Australia is  behind on using BIM.

Jerry: On a building like that, [1 Bligh Street] you almost have to. One of the issues about building a more complex façade [such as Norman Foster’s or Christoph Ingenhoven’s naturally ventilated buildings] is that you can get much better technology in Europe and you get much better results than in the US because in Germany, you can’t work on a building site without a two-year degree. In the US if you can “fog a mirror”, [when times are busy] you can work on a building site.

Craig: It’s a bit like that here, when things get busy! A double skin façade is actually quite complex.

Air quality and control

Richard de Dear: One of the big topics emerging is personal control. We’re used to shared indoor environments and they don’t suit everyone. It would be fairly typical in terms of thermal comfort for a good building to achieve 80-85 per cent [satisfaction for occupants]. But getting 100 per cent satisfaction is impossible basically with a shared environment, so the new area is giving people individual control in a variety of ways.

In the green building context – [there will be] ventilation and operable windows and a whole slew of technologies and products that give people more control in their individual work space – they’re already out there – but they will get more market share.

Lynne: Is natural ventilation widely used?

Richard: Not in Australia and it surprises me because we’ve got a very benevolent climate.

The forgiveness factor in green

Richard: The forgiveness factor … it’s gold. It’s a valuable asset. What it means is that people will be quite accepting and actually embrace the fluctuating environment in a green building, but if that happens in an air-conditioned building, it’s a disaster.

Jerry: At The Gauge [in Melbourne] it’s all about the people. Chilled beams really started here, we learned it from Ché Wall and those guys at Transsolar, the idea that you can move a lot more energy with water than with air. At 105 degrees [Fahrenheit = 41 degrees Celsius], water feels very hot, like in a hot tub, but air at 105 degrees doesn’t bother you very much.

You can get higher comfort with higher ambient temperatures, using radiant cooling techniques.

[Craig says it’s deceptive to trust surveys of thermal comfort; it depends on the time of day or week that the question is asked. Results on Monday morning vary greatly – by 40-50 per cent – compared to results from Friday afternoons.]

Jerry: Building IQ [an Australian company] has this thermal comfort survey that they build into their building control model so that it can pop up on people’s computer screen to ask, “are you comfortable right now?”

Steve: Do they send it out at the same time of day?

Performance survey

Andrew Aitken: [In relation to a new survey on the gap between predicted and actual NABERS performance] For 95 per cent of the buildings we looked at there was only a one-star difference.

We’re refining the research but  early results indicate there is a very close correlation to what was predicted … yes there were some extremes predicted, but only five per cent had a variation of greater than one-star NABERS.

Andrew: People claim credits for points they know they’re not going to get. So the assessment process is very important. When they don’t get the extra points, they are not surprised.

Absolute cuts to carbon emissions rather than relative cuts

Jerry has lately been arguing the need for absolute emissions cuts from buildings, not just against a benchmark. He says even the highest rated buildings have modest achievements. See an article he wrote on this issue, based on an extract from his forthcoming book:

Jerry: The best  average improvement you can get with the higher LEED rating is 25-35 per cent improvement.

Craig: I saw that number, 25-35 per cent. Against what base?

Jerry: Against the current ASHRAE standard, which doesn’t really reveal anything. We only publish blogs that trail off.

Romilly: They used that statistic at Greenbuild Toronto.

Jerry: It’s the ASHRAE 90.1 standard [ American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers]  But one has to ask, against which version, 99 or 04 or 07 or 2010…?

On improvements against a benchmark

Andrew: [The GBC method] is you can build a building in accordance with the law and then look at the improvements beyond that and reduce right down to 100 per cent elimination of carbon emissions.

Jerry: Energy isn’t the issue, it’s carbon emissions that are the issue.
[He discusses the co-efficient of carbon emissions, which varies from country to country. And according to the type of power used in that country, adds Romilly. For instance in France it’s nuclear, so there are no emissions. Or Tasmania, which has hydro power compared with Victoria, which has brown coal.]

Jerry: If everything is a relative improvement then, and that baseline keeps shifting, if  I’ve got a 60 per cent  improvement on ASHRAE 90.1-1999  [standards], I don’t know how that  relates to the 90.1-2010 ASHRAE number, but I do know that absolute carbon use is important. We need to find out what’s best in class world-wide.

Romilly: It’s really difficult to have a common metric world-wide because you can’t interpret other countries’ measurement differences.

In Australia we have NABERS, whereas other countries don’t have that; other countries don’t have those metrics; many also don’t have building codes.

Jerry: But you can still say this building uses so much carbon and it is what it is. In a 2003 survey in the US one thing that interested me was that energy use in from 1970s building swas similar to buildings completed much later. Performance is almost independent of a building’s age. You would think it had gotten better over time.

Romilly: Craig’s research would show you that that’s not the case – Investa has  a website, Green Buildings Alive – which covers all their assets, most of which are existing assets in [a variety] of locations. We were having a conversation before you arrived, and Craig  said half of performance is technology and half of it is competence.

Andrew: It is interesting because old technology buildings perform just as well as new technology buildings.

[Jerry says that in the US there are now more refurbished LEED-certified space  than new.]

Jerry: I want to communicate with you about a discussion I had with Malcolm Lewis, head of LEED technical committee for many years, and it was that we get the same points in LEED going from 15 per cent more efficient to 20 per cent as we do going from 25 per cent to 30 per cent, which is much harder, so why don’t we graduate the points along a steeply sloped curve where get a lot more credit for 40 to 50 per cent [improvement] than from 10 to 20 per cent?

In LEED it should be the case that if you fall below a certain threshold it costs you big time in terms of negative points.

[Matthew says there are improving standards in Australia due to actual performance reporting through NABERS Energy ratings, which requires offices of 2000 square metres or more to be NABERS rated on sale or lease.]

Matthew: It means designers can  get feedback on what actually resulted from their designs and improve their modelling accordingly.

The next big thing

Jerry: What is the next big thing?

Tina Perinotto: Getting our old buildings upgraded.  The average age of buildings in Sydney is 19 years.

Steve: It would have to be a lot older than that.

Tina: Whatever it is, that’s a big issue.

Andrew: In Australia we see almost a total focus on the environmental impact on energy: green buildings are all about energy and it’s quite difficult to expand beyond that and get people to understand that there are other impacts to be considered.  For example, we should be considering water efficiency in the driest continent on Earth.

Jerry: Right now we’re in what I call the hydro-illogical cycle: from panic to rain to apathy and back again.

Matthew Clark: The drought was so big everyone was contributing.

[Someone mentions that a man was murdered during the drought because he was watering his garden.]

Jerry: Water is very primal. It’s visceral. You don’t get that with energy.

Steve: One of the issues is that people are getting fed up with the green thing. Economics is dominating, instead of the focus being on resource scarcity and pollution.
What do all green buildings have in common? They are properly thought about and properly designed and maybe we should focus on that.

Jerry: It takes a system to replace a system. The way we use energy and our transport … there is more energy used in transport [of office workers] than in office buildings. [In the US the average work commute one way is 12 kilometres.]

Matthew: It’s like 8 per cent in Australia in the CBD [he thinks].

Jerry: If you don’t tackle transport and urban design you’ve missed the boat. The thing is … that this is systemic.

[Another big issue] is resilience of the natural environment. If we can’t grow food we have a real problem. In Qatar there is a minister of food security.
In Singapore they’re buying land in northeast China.

Matthew: All these issues about geo-political events, at the end of the day with all this big picture stuff a big part of it is saying, “It’s not my fault; it’s someone else’s fault and someone has to go and fix it and we’re all actually quite wasteful.”

The whole green building thing is about being less wasteful, like Steve was saying. Doing the stuff we were doing before, but just doing it better. So individually there is so much we can do to improve everything.

Sharing data and Jerry’s new book

[Jerry says that many ideas are being put forward without sufficient data to decide how effective the different mechanism or technologies are. This is what his new book has attempted to do. It draws on the performance of 55 LEED Platinum and six star Green Star buildings or equivalents around the world for which there is a good range of data.]

Jerry: The idea is to get real data and turn it into design metrics to produce, for instance, a building that used a very low100 kilowatt hours a sq m a year.

[A complication is that in Europe the data does not omit the plug loads – the energy consumed by items plugged into the building – in other words the base building is not treated separately as in Australia. The US too takes a whole building perspective.

[Jerry’s co-author in the book is Ulf Meyer, a German professor who was able to access data from some Japanese buildings. The book also includes a handful of buildings in China but none in India. Best performance from the building data collected seems to be 100-150 kW per square metre for full building energy use and 200-400 litres of water per sq m a year. Included in the book will be 1 Bligh Street, Sydney, Pixel,  The Gauge and Council House II  in Melbourne, 2 Victoria in Perth, and Workplace6 in Sydney. The book will also include a  building in Singapore that is zero net-energy rated.]

Jerry: Most people won’t give you data.

[Craig mentions the Greenprint foundation, a collaboration of major building owners on sharing data, now absorbed into the Urban Land Institute in the US.

[In the US, says Jerry, for example in San Francisco, most buildings will use outside air for cooling.]

[Craig suspects there is a local factor going on; that building managers mostly talk to their own local peers and don’t cross reference with other regions.]

Craig: [Building managers in the UK] aren’t talking to people in San Francisco … and their architects aren’t talking to other architects.

Jerry: Good design is good design. The value of the green building movement is that it’s really sharing information worldwide in a way that hasn’t been done before. We’ve picked up things from Germany that are very different to the US market and we’ve picked up chilled beams from Ché Wall and those designers are starting to see that manufacturers all sell the same stuff with some local variation. Obviously in the higher latitude climates you’ve got to think about heating in a way you don’t here. In the UK they use a lot of groundsource heat pumps, and in Europe. Someone asked me today why it isn’t being used in Australia.

Tina: It is, we’ve done a story on it. Luigi Roselli is using it in a residential project. I think Ché [Wall] used it at Newcastle University.

Craig: you use it to heat and cool. Depending on what the ground temperature is, if it’s too hot you can cool it down and if it’s too cool, you can heat it up.

Jerry: If you think about ground temperature, it tends to be 10 degrees centigrade year-round and most European ground source heat pump technology goes down 100 metres, so at that level it’s pretty much constant temperature. In winter in Melbourne the  temperature 100 metres below ground would be warmer than the outside air.

Steve: Problem is getting the drilling equipment to drill the holes in Australia – they’re all being used in the mines.

On optimism

Jerry: The people who tend to be biased on the pessimistic side just need to look at the fact that 10 years ago we didn’t have a green building discussion and now we are really getting better answers and tackling this.

Craig: The optimistic bias is why humanity still exists.

Compiled from recordings by Tina Perinotto and Lynne Blundell

This event was sponsored by The Investa Sustainability Institute